It’s a term that has been thrown around a lot lately. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “cultural appropriation” as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” But what it the definition doesn’t address is that the people that are taking or using these things are often from a more dominant culture, while the people whose things are being appropriated tend to be from cultures that have experienced some kind of oppression or discrimination.
As travelers, we represent our own cultures while engaging with others, and strive to represent our cultures as authentically as possible while traveling. It is important to identify the line between appreciation and appropriation in how we represent other groups, both while we travel and while we’re at home.
A Quick Example
One commonly used example of cultural appropriation is the appropriation of Native American headdresses by US festival goers in the summertime. In many Plains Native American groups, headdresses are traditionally worn by male leaders who have earned a place of great honor or respect within their tribe, usually during battle or some sort of ceremonial occasion. By wearing headdresses to festivals, festival goers are removing the headdress from the context in which it is traditionally used and assigning it a new meaning or context that can be offensive to the tribal groups that the headdress symbol was borrowed from. The Native American population also has a long history of oppression in the United States and by wearing headdresses, festival attendees are once again taking from community that has already had their lives, land and culture taken from them.
Why Avoid Cultural Appropriation
Anything that has traditionally been associated with a cultural group or community can be appropriated, whether it’s a physical item, a practice, a symbol, fashion, hairstyles, or anything else.
Domination and Oppression
Appropriation of another culture by a dominant group is all about power, showing that the dominant group can continue the oppression or discrimination against the group they’ve taken something from, often without facing any real consequences for their actions.
Cultural appropriation can be offensive because the thing being taken is often misrepresented. This misrepresentation can be as simple as being used out of context to as terrible as being straight up stolen from the group: like when the Kardashian’s recently thought they introduced the world to the hairstyle they called “boxer braids” which are actually are an ancient traditional African style of hair grooming.
In some cases, appropriation can add to cultural stereotypes, which often pop up around Halloween in the form of costumes (think “Indians”, “Geishas”, “Sheikhs”, etc). These misrepresentations can add to the oppression of the cultures being appropriated and their negative experiences.
How Can We Avoid Cultural Appropriation?
As travelers, we become immersed in a wide range of cultures. Unfortunately, sometimes we appropriate these cultures, often without realizing what we are doing. It is our responsibility to recognize cultural appropriation and avoid falling into the act ourselves. One way to avoid cultural appropriation is to follow a series of simple questions.
“What group does this practice/item/symbol belong to and how are they oppressed?”
Knowing where the practice/item/symbol comes from if half the battle – education is key in understanding if you’re appropriating something. If the group is still oppressed for the practice/item/symbol you’re thinking of using in some way, then you’re probably appropriating that thing, since you wouldn’t be oppressed by using it.
“Do I benefit from doing this? If so, how?”
If you’re planning on using something because it’s trendy or would make for a cool picture, that should be a pretty red flag, as it probably means you will end up appropriating the thing.
“Could this make someone uncomfortable?”
If the answer is “yes”, don’t do it! If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask a friend, especially if you can connect with someone you know who is a member of the group the practice/item/symbol belongs to.
Cultural appropriation is complicated and confusing, as the lines are often blurred. It’s hard to avoid offending everyone, but educating yourself about other cultures can help in the process of avoiding appropriation. It will help you in the long run, trust me.
About KB: Originally from Kentucky, KB Gamblin is a freelance writer and the blogger behind Her Life in Ruins. KB is a trained archaeologist, lover of history, and passionate traveler. When she’s not on the road, you can find her hanging out with her dog, Indiana Jones.